Thoughts on the Scholarly Communication Institute

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Last week I was really fortunate to attend the Scholarly Communication Institute 9 at the University of Virginia. This was the final in an annual series of meetings designed to provoke discussion (and action) about the way scholarship is produced, consumed, and disseminated.

The roster of attendees was impressive, and I was decidedly junior. Consequently, I spent a lot of time listening (though I happily made some presumptuous statements when invited).

I sort of saw my role there as attempting to represent the interests of those of us in lower-ranking, sometimes tenuous, academic positions: the postdocs and grad students of the world.

It was a heady atmosphere. Frankly, it was exhilarating to discuss these questions with people who might actually be able to do something about them. It was one of a number of occasions over the last year when I’ve been struck by the unusual, exciting, absurd opportunities this field has afforded me.

One revelation to me was a simple corrective to a misapprehension under which I labored throughout grad school. I thought things were the way they were — that I had to produce a very specific kind of scholarly work under a very specific kind of value system — because eminent players in the field wanted it that way. If I wanted their respect, I had to do as they bid.

Well, come to find out, they don’t like it either. OK, OK, those who are satisfied with the status quo probably wouldn’t have been at SCI anyway, but the heads of the AHA, SCMS, CAA, and the ACRL? The editors of the MIT Press, Johns Hopkins University Press, Georgetown University Press? I don’t know, to me that looks like a critical mass.

I took pages of notes and made some big plans. The Institute will produce a formal report about the proceedings, and the Chronicle of Higher Education has already published a good article about the Institute. But for what they’re worth, here are some points of discussion that made an impression on me.

Smarter ways of apportioning credit for different kinds of scholarship

No one disputes the value of the sustained scholarly argument, but at the moment the monograph appears to hold disproportionate weight as a form of academic currency. This is damaging for a few reasons. First, it chokes off other potentially interesting kinds of work: digital projects, discursive narratives, short-form scholarship. Second, it puts scholars in a terrible bind, since, while the monograph is increasingly a precondition for tenure (and hiring), only so many books can actually be published. Finally, it puts stress on academic publishers, who told us how much they hate being thought of solely a conduit for the publication of dissertations.

What if the academy were willing to accept other kinds of scholarship for professional credit? How interesting it would be to value collaborative work, works in progress, blog posts, interface designs.

Better ways of reaching different kinds of audiences

As the SCI 8 report notes, scholarly communication has been heavily focused on what authors need. Authors need to get tenure; authors need to get hired; authors need to make names for themselves. But what about the audiences for this scholarship? What do they want? What are they interested in? Are there audiences we’re not reaching? As Tom Scheinfeldt put it, what about the reviewer on Amazon who’s an accountant in her daily life but, for whatever reason, cares deeply about postmodern literary theory? Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could get someone like this involved in the conversation? Wouldn’t it be interesting to see if new audiences might revitalize scholarly debate?

New venues for creating and disseminating scholarship

I love the way Shana Kimball put it: we need more “strange institutions” dedicated to getting strange scholarship out into the world: hybrid library-publishers, DH centers that produce scholarly work. Academic presses have tremendous institutional knowledge and efficient workflows for creating certain kinds of scholarship. What if we mash that up with other institutions to create new workflows and new systems of reward and value?

Professional pathways for new kinds of professionals

This is obviously an issue of some importance to me. Given this altered scholarly landscape, and given that we’re exhorting our young scholars to get crazy and try new things, are we sure they’ll be able to earn a living once they do? Well, we are not. But we’re getting closer, I think. I’m tremendously encouraged by developments such as the new mediaCommons collection on alternative academic careers, the Off the Tracks discussion at the University of Maryland, and other signs that new ways of working might be entering into mainstream discussion. My concern, increasingly, is that the jobs we’re creating for these new workers are high-quality, stable positions with room for creativity and an equitable division of credit. I think we’re at a critical phase in the development of a cadre of alt-ac professionals, and I’m concerned that these people are able to earn a decent, professionally satisfying living.

Which is not to say I perceive myself to be making any kind of sacrifice by doing what I do. To tell you the truth, I love my work, and I believe in my work. SCI helped me remember why I care so much about it.

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